Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Last week, during the alternately sad, alternately voyeuristic coverage of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s troubles, I recalled a night that the Congressman himself has probably forgotten. Sometime in 1996 or 1997, Jackson made a speech at Alabama State University in my hometown, Montgomery. At least one local media outlet confused the young, newly elected representative with his father; a then defensible mistake reflecting the fact that much of America, much less Alabama, did not yet know there was a second generation Jackson rising in his own right.
But Montgomery’s African American professional crowd in their twenties or early thirties knew better, and they turned out to see one of their own generation’s most promising members do a star turn. The speech was good but not memorable—more polished than powerful, no preacher’s hook—but the electricity lingered. It was a lot of glamour, a lot of promise, just enough inspiration, in a community where “up and coming politician” meant at most future city councilman, at most state senator. This Jackson seemed to have the stuff to take the train much further. It would not have stunned a man or woman in that aging gymnasium to think that a future president had left a little touch of star dust behind.
I would see Jackson in action a hundred times more. He is one of a handful of House members who can give an authentic floor speech, versus droning through a turgid, staff drafted floor statement. He evolved into the orator whose possibilities were only just in view that night in Montgomery: by the time I watched him speak in Alabama in 2007 as an Obama surrogate, he had the gift nailed, and wasn’t much off Barack Obama’s rhetorical pace: it was a common refrain that day in the audience that Jesse had made the Obama case better than Obama himself had made it in Selma a few months earlier.
The legislator who developed over the last 16 or so years has his defects. Jesse Jr. never turned into a grind-it-out policy technician: his fixation on tacking onto the US Constitution every modern progressive policy plank was quixotic more than serious-minded. He frustrated the Hill crowd by neither reaching for leadership status himself nor aligning with the various power grids that attached around Nancy Pelosi or Steny Hoyer. In a world were institutional status is sought and lobbied over, Jackson’s coolness to that sort of thing could look like disengagement.
His admirers kept chafing at his reluctance to reach for higher office. The presumed target, a Senate seat in Illinois, was there for the taking in 2004 but Jackson deferred to a black state senator he barely knew who had been mashed pretty badly in a House race four years earlier. In 2007, Jackson took all the steps to challenge another legacy product, Richard Daley, for Mayor, and stepped back again.
The game of politics requires mobility, either toward internal party power or to the next office on the ladder, and a politician who aims for neither is prone to stagnate. I suspect Jesse Jr. felt that tug and it explains the frenzy around his effort to get appointed to the Senate in late 2008 (an effort that did not cross the line into illegality, based on what I have seen, and probably wouldn’t look suspect if the target of persuasion had been anybody but Rod Blagojevich.) While I certainly never heard him express the thought, it would have been inhuman if Jackson didn’t notice that the chits from giving Obama and Daley their space weren’t exactly pouring in. The Obama team, for example, appeared to view Jackson as a ship they had passed on the way, and didn’t even include him on a list of favored suitors for the seat. The Democratic seers in Illinois lapsed very quickly into chatter that Jackson was too “Chicago” to build a statewide brand, more or less their initial take on Obama in 2003.
Politics is anything but fair and I never heard Jesse complain. The maddening irony, though, was that most of the ingratitude could be seen a mile away, involved people whose mindsets he knew all too well, and still Jackson seemed unprepared. He actually seemed to prefer to bid in an insider competition, where he had never excelled, instead of trusting his skills in a fight for voters, where his gifts might have enabled him to fare so much better.
It struck me as perplexing when I heard him say he could never raise the money to run a Senate race without the virtue of an appointment, because that deference to conventional wisdom and doubt clashed so thoroughly with the many times he took on the established point of view: becoming a reform ally in Chicago, endorsing Obama for the Senate in 04 when it seemed pointless. A man with unmistakable boldness never seemed to give a second’s worth of thought to a brass-knuckled tactic like announcing he would run in the Senate primary in 2010 no matter what, to test the Democratic machine’s path of least resistance politics.
Today, that lack of audacity is chalked off to internal demons that have burst into view. Not enough of the armchair psychologists have asked why a Democratic Party he backed to the hilt seemed so dismissive of Jackson’s appeal, why the media perennially measured him solely against black men of his generation—Obama, Ford, Booker—and rarely against the array of other, blander politicians he would have easily outstripped in Washington or Chicago. The lull in Jackson’s career seems, in fairness, partly Jesse Jackson Jr., partly an example of the insidious ways a campaigner of his massive skills can still be bottled up by racial limitations.
To be sure, Jackson is a sitting official who is on the public dime, and his constituents are entitled to know if he can still serve. But the tough truth is that Jackson’s run in public life is something better, and more complicated, than the silences and barbs from old rivals suggest.